Tour manager Andy "Franksy" Franks (right) enjoys a
moment of down time on the plane.
Most Americans haven’t heard of Robbie Williams – yet –
but he is a bona fide international superstar who recently signed the biggest recording contract in the history of the British music industry.
Andy “Franksy” Franks, also known as “The Prince of Darkness” (because he wears black clothing exclusively) has been his tour manager since 1997. Arguably, Franks has the most glamorous, most frustrating, most complicated, most fascinating job on earth.
If Brigadoon is a town that appears and disappears in the same place every 100 years, then a concert tour is a town that appears and disappears in a different place every few days. Mythical town or not, some concert tours must accommodate anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand temporary inhabitants every day, depending on the popularity of a performer.
“Real” towns hire city managers to supervise planning, prepare budgets and make sure things are running smoothly. Concert tours hire tour managers who do exactly the same things, only with the added distraction of constant transit on planes, trains and automobiles.
Franks explains, “It's my job to work with the production manager who puts the whole tour together, overseeing hiring all crew, coordinating the production, stage set, sound lights, travel etc., and to be responsible for the smooth running of the entire operation. The buck stops here.
“I have to draw up a budget for the tour and discuss costs with the management, accountants and agents to try and make sure the tour is successful and hopefully profitable, but also enjoyable for the band.” Costs for every concert tour vary. Some tour budgets are a few thousand dollars a week; others can cost a few million dollars a week.
During the six-week summer tour of 2003, more than 4.5 million people attended a Robbie Williams concert, if you take into account the live television and Internet simulcasts of the performances. Few, if any of the concert-goers knew or appreciated that it was Franks who made sure that the elaborate special effects, stage sets and the band were in place in time for each of the performances.
Logistics R Us
The weight of responsibility on this particular tour manager’s shoulders is best demonstrated by the $45 average ticket price, multiplied by the 20,000 to 50,000 seat stadiums that Robbie Williams sells out routinely in a matter of minutes, not to mention the approximately 20 million records and miscellaneous merchandise sold annually if the tour is successful.
Excuse the pun, but there’s a lot riding on how well Franks does his job. A successful tour is a very big business that makes a lot of money. That is why touring itself has spawned another business just as lucrative: providing touring performers with whatever they need to take their shows on the road. [That would be hardware, vehicles and equipment, in case you’re thinking of something not so savory.]
Nowadays, there’s even a one-stop shopping website for the convenience of Franks and other tour managers, StageAccess.com. From this website are links to the Trathens Star Riders buses in which the Robbie Williams’ crew travels. Each crew bus sleeps 14, has a toilet and a small kitchen, and also features two lounges and private spaces for watching videos or listening to music.
Franks rents trucks to haul equipment from another company called Stage Truck. The company also has a website, stagetruck.com, that advertises it has, “transported some of the biggest names in show business,” and claims, “All of our drivers are specialists in the entertainment industry and we pick the driver to ensure he or she will ‘live the tour;’ and suit the atmosphere of the band or artist whose equipment is being transported.”
While traveling, Franks is able to keep in touch with these and other suppliers on his laptop. He uses a satellite-based broadband global area network system that was developed 20 years ago by the British government to provide communication for shipping. A few years ago, the data-only satellite link became privatized to exploit its fast Internet connections across Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East and India.
On the Road Again and Again and Again
Franks, once a bass guitar player in the English equivalent of a garage band that had some success and was able to buy a PA system, reveals how this led to him becoming a tour manager 20 years ago. “We took turns to mix the sound of the band. That got me into a job mixing sounds for bands professionally.
Robbie Williams rides a plane on tour.
“Then I worked for a band called Depeche Mode. I became a monitor engineer, then a stage manager, then the production manager and finally the tour manager. And that’s how I got in to tour managing.”
Success is all the sweeter now because he remembers that, “when Robbie Williams first started playing theatres, we had two trucks. On our last tour we had 54.”
There is no limit to the kind of things that go into those trucks either. In addition to the things you’d expect, such as the instruments and equipment needed for the show, “We travel everything, including the kitchen sink,” reports Franks.
Touring regulars include, musicians, a carpenter, caterers, wardrobe people, pyrotechnics, satellite navigation guys, sound people, drivers, scaffolders, security personnel, and others. Most of them know each other because “we tend to use the same people whenever possible,” Franks reveals, adding “On some tours the whole family and nannies go. On our tour, we usually just have people come visit.”
An Army travels on its stomach and so does a tour. Food is an important line item on the budget. The tour provides everyone three meals at a cost of $4,500, per day. This summer there were 15 chefs on the road to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. They prepared three appetizers, six main courses and a selection of desserts daily. “They’re five-star, classically trained everything from sushi to soup to every type of meal you could think of,” boasts Franks.
Among a score of official duties, Franks oversees the travel and logistics for this traveling band and crew of 65 people that swells to 250 in every city in which the tour performs. That’s how many additional hands are hired locally to get tons of stage equipment loaded, erected, dismantled, and reloaded every 24 to 72 hours.
By this summer’s end, the tour manager had orchestrated the simultaneous movement of over 1,000 tons of goods, stage equipment, and personal effects through Edinburgh Scotland; Vienna, Austria; Munich, Berlin, Hannover, Mannheim, and Gelsenkirchen, Germany; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Stockholm, Sweden; England and Dublin, Ireland.
There was a private plane for the band, ten crew buses, and the 54 trucks hauling luggage, wardrobe, pyrotechnics, satellite navigation, sound equipment, scaffolding, security equipment, catering supplies, and 35,000 gallons of fuel. “Most people on the tour limit themselves to a manageable amount of luggage,” says Franks.
Thanks to the Common Market and adoption of Euro currency, crossing national borders is a lot less complicated than it used to be. “We use a company to sort out any necessary visas. Border crossing in Europe is much easier since the advent of the EEC,” he concludes. “We had the usual things like people losing or forgetting their passport, which is quite difficult. It's not easy getting people in and out of countries without a passport. But you have to kind of do it.”
Being on the road for long periods tends to intensify all kinds of human dramas. When family members die, for instance, it is up to Franks to get the tour member back home quickly. “They're the sort of things that you don't imagine dealing with in a rock and roll tour but if you put 250 people on the road for six to eight weeks then you're bound to get things happening,” says Franks.
“Once the artist has agreed to tour, agents in various countries are contacted to find the availability of the particular venues. The venues get chosen according to how many people we think we can draw in any particular market. We try to route the tour in a sensible order, depending on this availability,” he adds.
Transportation choices vary accordingly too. In general, the band goes by plane and the crew travels by bus. “The time to get from point A to point B affects the decision of routing,” explains Franks. “All vehicles, including buses and trucks are rented, but the buses and trucks are custom fitted to special requirements.” The shortest tour rental Franks ever did was for eight days and the longest was for 15 months.
He has few concerns about vehicle mileage, fuel type, and environmental-friendly transportation choices, though. “We just hire the company.” The regular tour drivers or local mechanics do the maintenance or repairs as necessary.
A World Unto Itself
Mark McCrum, a journalist who traveled with the Robbie Williams 2001 European tour, provided a glimpse of the frenetic daily grind.1 “Load-in” or unpacking of the trucks began at 7 a.m. with assistance from the 250 locals hired to supplement the staff that travels with the tour. By 8:30 a.m., caterers unloaded the traveling kitchen, set the tables and began serving a full breakfast to everyone who wanted one.
As the crew unloads one truck at-a-time, elsewhere the stage is being readied for performance. Musical instruments are unpacked, the stage set is unloaded and erected, and the sound crew begins to do what they do.
Each arena is different so the painstaking process of taking exacting laser measurements is done each time they arrive in a new location. These measurements are compared to the number of people that are expected in the audience and where they will be seated. The figures determine where to place the speakers for optimum sound values.
At 10 a.m. yet another truck is being unloaded. The lighting crew is hard at work on the stage along with the people erecting the set. The band begins arriving and instruments are placed. By 1 p.m., the mechanics of the stage set are tested. After a full sit-down lunch, the lights for the special effects are programmed and focused for that night’s performance. It takes several hours.
At 4 p.m. the sound check begins. Half an hour later, the doors open and the audience begins arriving. The supporting warm-up acts begin performing by 6:30 p.m. Williams goes on stage around 9 p.m. By 11:30 p.m., all this is undone. The crew has to dismantle the set, repack the trucks, and get everything and everybody back on the road by 2 a.m. or later to the next location.
Says Franks, who’s on the road 150 days in a typical year, “We travel straight after the show to the next city, sometimes we are in a venue for multiple dates, but as soon as the show finished it is time to move the circus.” Traveling in this way leaves little time for anything else. While on the road, laments Franks “the band has the most time off. I never do as the phone goes 24/7.”
There’re pitifully few opportunities to escape from each other either. To compensate, Franks has earned a reputation as “Mr. Extra-Curricular” because he is so good at organizing recreational activities for everybody in whatever city they happen to be in at the time.
McCrum’s account of a trip to the movies organized by Franks when the tour was in Hamburg, Germany reads more like a full-scale military invasion than a night out with friends and co-workers. Hours before the movie started, security staff (retired military) had gone on ahead to reconnoiter the local movie theatre.
Says Franks, “We did try to get a horse into somebody's room once for his birthday present but that proved to be a little bit too difficult; the hotel wasn't too keen on that!”
Not Always So Glamorous
Working for a superstar and traveling around the world in a concert tour has its drawbacks. “Some countries are so dangerous that we have to have armed guards in the vehicles,” reports Franks.
During one tour, a deranged man got past security, walked onto the stage during a performance, and pushed Williams off stage several feet down into the audience. Luckily his attacker was not armed.Williams was not hurt seriously and finished the performance.
This year, the tiny hamlet of Hertfordshire, England was the site for three concerts at Knebworth Park. Three hundred thousand people converged at once. The resulting traffic congestion rivaled the worst rush-hour in any major metropolitan area and became international news.
People had to abandon their cars and walk miles to the stadium to catch the last few minutes of the concert. Still other concert-goers had to wait for up to six hours or more to get out of the parking lot after the show was over.
Angry fans singled out Franks for the chaos. “Hey man, wot a hell happened in Knebworth Park?? Lots of angry people like me were stuck in the traffic!!! Now where’s our money back???? Also not enough trains. Only four got there.”
“It took me nine hours to get to Knebworth when it should have taken two. Your concert organizers [should be fired]. If you ask me, the traffic management was appalling. I missed the majority of the concert and despite being told to complain to the ticket company I have yet to receive a response.”
Is it all worth it? Andy Franks thinks so. “Robbie Williams is without doubt the most entertaining performer I've ever seen or certainly ever had the pleasure to work with. There is just nobody in the world doing what he's doing. He is the greatest entertainer on the planet without a doubt. There is nobody in his league. I only ever get a chance to go out for one or two songs during a show but I always make a point of going out there because you listen and suddenly you realize the reason why you're there. It makes it all worthwhile.”
So if and when Robbie Williams does ever end up touring the United States in a city or town near you, remember his tour manager, Andy Franks and what it took to get him there on stage.
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